To review briefly, the kernel of this purported "development" about use of the death penalty is found in these two key texts:
Pope John Paul II in EV:
It is clear that, for these purposes [defending public order and ensuring safety] to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.And the Catechism:
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.Recall, if you will, that from these texts I distilled the following principles:
1) Recourse to the death penalty is moral generally speaking;For purposes of this argument, I will assume that EV and the CC are binding moral principles and not merely hortatory exhortations built upon flawed social science.
2) The death penaly should be avoided when "non-lethal" means can protect society; and,
3) Recourse to the death penalty even where "non-lethal" means suffice to protect society is moral, but less in conformity with human dignity and would be justified only where exceptional circumstances render it necessary and never for reasons less than those included in the traditional ends of punishment (the "common good").
Note, however, that I take the texts at face value, and do not expand their meaning. This is vital to understand, because much political agitation by bishops and even by recent popes has proceeded from a failure to construe these passages strictly with a view to reconciling them with the strong tradition of a much broader moral justification for resort to the the death penalty.
An example of an abusive interpretation is this Live Blog session, where Jeff Caruso, Executive Director of an organization called the Virginia Catholic Conference (the two Virginia Catholic Bishops' lobbying arm) explained the Virginia bishops' call for the abolition of the death penalty in Virginia thusly:
The late Pope John Paul II, the U.S. bishops, and the Virginia bishops have all specifically called for an end to the use of the death penalty in countries like ours. That's because the teaching of the Church is that the death penalty cannot be justified whenever nonlethal means are sufficient to protect society from an unjust aggressor. In other words, things like deterrence and the heinousness of the crime are not valid considerations in determining whether the death penalty is appropriate. The only appropriate consideration is whether we could protect society without using it. The US and Virginia bishops are convinced that, with our prison system and the life without parole alternative, the death penalty is not needed in our country and therefore should not be used.(Emphasis added).
The claims made by Caruso are flat out false. Neither EV nor the CC state that use of the death penalty for deterrence is immoral or impermissible. The strongest textual claim that can be made is that the CC asserts that refraining from use of the death penalty in all but public safety cases is "more in conformity with the dignity of the human person." EV expressly allows that in cases of necessity in order to defend society, the death penalty is appropriate. EV then refers to improvements that purportedly make such necessity rare, but EV does not state that life without parole (LWOP) as an alternative punishment means that there are no cases of necessity. Nor does it state that the specific deterrence of a particular offender is an illegitimate aim of the death penalty.
While LWOP might in certain cases remove the "necessity" of execution, neither EV nor the CC state that a LWOP alternative to execution is always a fact that renders "necessity" to defend society by execution irrelevant. In fact, LWOP does not guarantee that society will be defended, and thus cannot possibly be the "improvements" referred to by EV which supposedly make the proper use of the death penalty rare.
Here are some cases where LWOP did not adequately defend society.
Indeed, as I've mentioned before, it's not unusual for convicted murderers to re-offend either while in prison or after they escape or are released.
That's right: released. The fact of the matter is that most states have mechanisms for parole even of so-called LWOP convicts. In Virginia, for example, a very tough-on-crime state, the law provides for furloughs and even for "geriatric" parole in some murder cases where juries thought they were imposing no-parole sentences. Executive clemency, moreover, allows governors to veto a LWOP sentence and that veto is non-reviewable.
Finally, in the politically volatile atmosphere in which we live, it's not hard to imagine current death penalty abolitionists arguing, should they succeed in stopping the death penalty, that LWOP is a cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. I've mentioned this tactic before and indeed, other countries have already abolished LWOP as being cruel. This is all the more craven because LWOP has all along been a ploy by the abolitionists to pry juries away from choosing the death penalty, even though it results in much lenghtier sentences for non-capital defendants. Human Rights Watch goofed and got off-message too soon, and spilled the beans about this next phase for the abolitionists: abolishing life without parole.
So whatever we may think, surmise, or conjecture about, it seems that when EV refers to "steady improvements in the organization of the penal system" which render the public safety need for executions "rare if not non-existent," it surely cannot be referring to LWOP. Perhaps a future authoritative clarification will illuminate just what it is Pope John Paul II was imagining rendered murderers definitively harmless.
In the meantime, of 38 states which allow a death penalty option, 37 states have a LWOP alternative (New Mexico will likely soon have it as well). What this means is that the fact-finder (judge or jury) and always, ultimately, the judge, has the ability to sift through the evidence and determine whether the defendant before him will be a future threat to society.
Sometimes no doubt this consideration involves looking at the depravity of the conduct involved in the case as a "predictor" of future violent conduct. Viewed in this light, we will be able to see that most death sentences in fact are addressed to incapacitating a dangerous offender.